A Quiet Passion

Because I could not stop for depth

a-quiet-passionTerence Davies’s take on Emily Dickinson’s life is a quiet film that addresses important conflicts of puritanical 1800s New England, particularly the lot of women in well-to-do religious families.  It’s carried along by a juggernaut of a performance by Cynthia Nixon, who captures Emily’s titular “quiet passion” in truly astounding fashion.  But as it stands, the film is a bit too focused – something I never thought I’d say – in that it seems intent on saying something, rather than shedding light on Emily and creating a complete, definitive piece of art about her life and legacy.

The film begins with Emily played by Emma Bell in a scene that could have been taken from Jane Eyre (and means to remind us of that story), spelling out her conflict with the religious traditions that women of her station were meant to unquestioningly embrace.  Otherwise, much of the film takes place at the Dickinson estate in Amherst, where Emily embroiders poems in her room, has meaningful talks with her family members (mostly her younger sister Lavinia, played by period-piece veteran Jennifer Ehle), and confronts the ugliness of the time period, slowly growing into the reclusive woman in white that romanticized versions of history tell us she was. We see her eagerly scribbling on paper while Nixon’s voice speaks the poems she’s producing.  What we don’t see is the struggle.  Sure, we witness Emily worrying about stuff, but not thinking things through, see.  In this way, the film sort of glosses over the writing process and just says, “Here’s this woman in this repressive time period who happened to be a genius; here’s some of her work.”  Not that everyone wants two hours of a character thinking about line breaks, but this kind of structure somewhat perpetuates the (incorrect) idea that the great writers all just got it right the first time.

A Quiet Passion zeroes in on one major theme: the struggles of women as a result of religious oppression.  In Emily’s world, women do, as her father (Keith Carradine) so sternly puts it, what is demanded by the station that God chose to saddle them with.  As such, Emily and her peers are taught nothing about what “married life” entails (including sex), and if you are not heterosexual, like poor Susan Gilbert (played sympathetically and masterfully by Jodhi May), you don’t even know what it means, much less can you express it in a meaningful way. One of the film’s most powerful scenes involves a conversation between Susan and Emily, in which the former describes her intimate life with Emily’s brother, Austin (Duncan Duff), in this way: “The thought of men in that respect turns me to stone.” On top of Susan’s struggle, we bear witness to the lack of life that other women of the time are afforded, most notably Emily’s mother (Joanna Bacon), who suffers from postpartum depression in a time when depression isn’t treated, much less in women.  Emily Sr.’s explanation for the fact that her crippling depression keeps her confined to her room and mostly ignored by her family? “I lead a quiet life.”

Succeed as the film might in discussing this subject, it does so at the expense of Emily Dickinson herself.  Besides glossing over her writing life, the film also omits her relationship with Susan, which (while possibly not physical) has been well-documented through incredible love letters between the two, and is a vital facet of Emily’s life (not to mention ideas about love in her poems).  Instead, we just get the one scene between them, the takeaway of which seems to be that Susan is yet another woman in an unfair situation, and that Emily wishes everyone could just be happy.  Also skipped are Emily’s penchant for baking (and sharing her baked creations with local children) and the eventual publishing of Emily’s cache of poems, found in her room after her death by Lavinia (which you’d think would be an important detail to include in a story about a writer who monologues about what her reputation will be when she’s gone).  Every publisher she meets (or who writes about her) is condescending and/or changes the poet’s work without her permission.  While these were certainly real experiences for her, the film is selective about these details: the real Emily met with plenty of men who respected her as an artist, and the altering of her work to suit the styles of the time, while a perverse act, was mostly done after her death, and by Mabel Loomis Todd, who appears in the movie not in that role, but in a relatively dead-end side plot with Austin.  There’s also a needless amount of time devoted to the Civil War, how many people died there, and how Austin’s “honor” is damaged because his dad won’t let him test his mettle.  So while Emily appears in every scene, she is sometimes relegated to the background, listening to dudes talk about their pride.  It would all be fine if we could see her thinking about her poems while these self-important chest-pounders go on and on, having no clue which person in the room will actually be remembered by history.

Some of the film’s most impressively acted (yet difficult to watch) scenes come after Emily contracts Bright’s disease, which attacks her kidneys and causes seizures, which we see in their entirety.  When all is said and done, and Emily’s siblings have witnessed her agonizing final days, the film leaves us having seen more of a biographical overview and a feminist critique of said biography rather than an intimate study of a character or the mind of a writer.  And the whole time, we just know that Emily will narrate her own funeral with “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.” I don’t mean to diminish its impact; it’s powerfully executed and left me feeling appropriately drained.  But when you consider how many theatrically-released movies have been made (or are likely to be made) about Emily, perhaps we owe her a little more.

a_quiet_passionA Quiet Passion (2017); written and directed by Terence Davies; starring Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Jodhi May, and Keith Carradine.

Arrival

I don’t know’s on third

arrivalDenis Villeneuve’s Arrival is probably the best first contact movie I’ve ever seen.  There’s no abduction, no galactic civil war, no silly “grays,” and no sainted white man who has to save the Earth.  In fact, there’s only one real character: Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist who is summoned to translate the language of an alien race that has recently landed spacecraft in disparate locations across the globe.  Despite the fact that the militaries of every nation have more or less quarantined the “shells” from the public, conflict doesn’t seem imminent; everyone still thinks it would be a good idea to see what the aliens want first.

Louise’s present narrative, in which she teams with physicist Ian Donnelly  (Jeremy Renner), straightforward military grunt Weber (Forest Whitaker), and antagonistic CIA stooge David Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg) to communicate with the aliens before the rest of the world – particularly China and their de facto leader, hair-trigger General Shang (Tzi Ma) – decides that it would be less trouble to open fire, is percussed by intermittent visions of her daughter’s life.  The flashbacks (or are they?) begin with a joyous birth, meaningful moments, and all the stuff you expect from movies-apologizing-for-reality montages, but then it becomes clear that Louise’s daughter, Hannah, died in adolescence from an inoperable cancer.  The past seems to weigh heavily on Louise, who struggles for the freedom to work in the quarantined shell zone, which is kept air-tight by the army.

The aliens themselves, called “heptapods” for their seven limbs, are one of the film’s greatest achievements, visually and in terms of originality.  Absent are the expected bipedal war-monger aliens who either possess convenient translators or just want to rip into us instead of talking.  The heptapods, who are so alien I can barely describe them (maybe picture a benevolent, organic version of Mass Effect‘s “Reapers”) speak in some kind of starfish language, but actually communicate via their writing system, which is more or less a magical ink that hangs in the air for a moment, and then vanishes.  Louise, chosen for a reason, slowly begins to break down this system and learns to introduce herself to the aliens, then to ask them simple questions, deciding to hold off on the “big one,” which is of course “Why are you here?”

I call Louise the only character because the others, while competently performed, exist to provide assorted foils to her.  She’s the one whose thoughts matter, whose struggle is real, and whose painful memories we have access to.  Whitaker’s character just wants to get this job finished and go home, preferably without getting court-marshaled for letting Louise go too far (though it is a bit convenient that she ended up supervised by someone so understanding, rather than Petraeus or Major Paine or some shit).  Stuhlbarg’s character is there because there needs to be an asshole government employee who reaches his boiling point before anyone else (and if Boardwalk Empire taught us anything, it’s that Michael Stuhlbarg is good at being reserved for a long time and then exploding).  Jeremy Renner isn’t actually in the film too much, which isn’t a bad thing, as his character isn’t important (honestly, for all Donnelly is good for, he could have been played by an extra whose face you never see – he serves the same purpose as Topher Grace’s character in Interstellar, although that movie seems extraordinarily silly compared to this one).

The titular “arrival” really has nothing to do with aliens.  Consider the fact that the source material is a novella called “Story of Your Life.” As it turns out (spoilers ahead), the heptapods do not even experience time the same way we do.  Instead, they experience all time periods at once, knowing from the time they are born exactly how and when they will die.  They’ve come to Earth because they have foreseen an undisclosed cataclysm that will impact them in three thousand years, and already know that they will need the help of humans to deal with it (sidenote: I’m not sure they should bank on humans being around for that long).  Therefore, they’ve come to Earth to gain our trust now.  In order to communicate this to the rest of the world, however, Louise needs to absorb this ability from the heptapods, and essentially travel to the future to stop Shang from obliterating China’s heptapod shell.  The kicker: that’s what we’ve been experiencing the whole time.  The visions of Hannah haven’t happened yet.

While the film is saying something about free will, it isn’t just asking whether you’d take the same path if you knew what was going to happen to you in the future (although it asks Louise to make that choice).  In a film like Another Earth, where a mirror planet’s versions of all of us have followed the same narrative right up until becoming aware of one another (essentially saying that we were all slaves to our destiny until that moment) Arrival (and its source story) assert that free will means not changing the timeline when tempted to.  In the original story, these ideas are conveyed via tenses – future tense for the daughter visions, past tense for the heptapod interactions – but you don’t have to study Fermat’s Principle to get it: Louise’s choice to conceive Hannah despite knowing how the girl’s life will end confirms the existence of choice itself, and that such a thing can seem monumental in the face of an inevitable future space war is amazing. Would we call it a “pro-choice” film, then?

arrival2c_movie_posterArrival (2016); based on the story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang; screenplay by Eric Heisserer; directed by Denis Villeneuve; starring Amy Adams.

 

 

Room

Red bells

room_stillIt’s a bit problematic that many internet reviews of Room refer to the ordeal of the characters as “outrageous,” considering how often stories like this appear in the news (with a much less happy outcome, more times than not), and how important it is to realize that abductions of the kind presented here are a very real problem.  Nevertheless, Room, based on Emma Donoghue’s novel, manages a few impressive feats: creating a realistic, terrifying/magical look at a very specific type of bonding; doing it without a single trace of “missing white girl syndrome,” and in the process giving Brie Larson the pivotal role she’s deserved from the beginning.

Joy Newsome (Larson) has been a captive of a monstrous man she calls Old Nick (named after the Devil and played by Sean Bridgers) for seven years.  Her family has long given up the search, having no clue that she’s been in a local man’s shed, nor that she has a four year-old son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay), who has never left the shed (referred to as “Room” by the pair) and is completely unaware that there is a world outside of it.  Whether or not biology helps soften the blow he’s about to receive when they inevitably escape, we don’t know.

It’s no “spoiler” to say that the duo makes it out, as the film is not about a victim’s battle against a predator, but about all of the possible directions a relationship between a mother and son can take when they’ve been incarcerated for nearly a decade and have never been apart from one another, and about which direction that relationship ultimately takes.  There’s depression involved.  There’s a lot of confusion.  There are things none of us think about, such as having to accept the fact that “real people with faces” exist, or that stairs are a thing.  The mental trauma doesn’t end with the escape, which drives Joy into a downward spiral of frustration and resentment even though she’s not in danger of being recaptured.  Her father (William H. Macy, once again playing a character we want to feel bad for, but can’t) cannot handle the fact that he has a grandson, nevermind that he’s already accepted that his daughter was deceased, and refuses even to look at Jack during dinner.  Joy’s high school friends, little more than memories in photos, have all moved on and away, now college grads with full lives.  Joy explodes at her mother, even blaming her for the original kidnapping (“If I didn’t have your voice in my head saying ‘Be nice,’ maybe I wouldn’t have helped the guy with the sick fucking dog.”)

Jack’s personal development is difficult to track, his being a child and all, but he’s actually the narrator of the story, and his take on being a prisoner is one nobody else would think of: it’s whimsical.  His monologues about what Room means to him, if put on a pamphlet, would make one think it were the most wonderful place in the world.  And naturally, these sections devolve into kid-babble that seemingly has nothing to do with the story (and frankly, it doesn’t, but that’s the great thing about kids: they haven’t yet been brainwashed into thinking that everything has to be plot-related), such as “I’m the best at running, and jumping, and everything!”  Young Tremblay, while actually closer to nine years old when playing the role, is a marvel.  Not once does he seem like he’s acting – how often is he?  Y’know, considering how often child actors are simply expressing their real emotions (every time a child cries on Boardwalk Empire?  Actual trauma!).

Brie Larson, deserving of the suitcase of awards she’s carrying away this season, plays Joy as a complicated woman now living two lives – the free-spirited one that was abruptly cut off by an evil rapist, back when the entire universe was open to her, and the one she must face now, as a mother in the world, after a third, middling life – the one in Room, a fantasy life that no one but she and Jack knew – has likewise been cut off.  Those who would question the motivations behind Joy’s various post-Room decisions are exactly the ones who need to understand (hopefully by the end) why she makes them, and that she cannot be blamed for any of it.  Larson’s performance is so nuanced and honest that I’ve finally come to terms with her exclusion from the final season of Community in order to film this – we needed this movie, and what’s even better is that the people in charge of moving money and golden statues seem to realize it as well (as oblivious as they may be to other issues).

220px-room_posterRoom (2015); written by Emma Donoghue; based on her novel; directed by Lenny Abrahamson; starring Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay.

 

 

 

 

Inherent Vice

Not hallucinating

inherent-vice-640x360PT Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, a novel written well into the age of irony and meta narrative, voluntarily entangles itself in genre trappings, and centers around a hippie version of Sherlock Holmes who simply cannot gel with the world in which he insists upon staying.  Doc (Joaquin Phoenix) is never without joint in hand and never has a clear thought.  He misses his ex, Shasta (Katherine Waterston), but doesn’t quite know why they broke up, and doesn’t quite want to be together again either.  His attempts at hardboiled dialogue quickly devolve into non sequitur.  His professional rivalry with oafish cop Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) consistently proves disastrous for him.  A DA with whom he’s having an affair (Reese Witherspoon) doesn’t trust his word because he’s stoned all the time.  Following a bold escape from white supremacist captors, a hand-off that should be climactic (complete with period cars parked at a safe distance whilst the skeptical strangers walk coolly toward one another) ends with a teenage girl flipping him off.  Like Doc, the film plods, meanders, and never forms any sense of direction, form, or anything that resembles a clear thought.  Doc pines for purpose but allows himself to drift, surrounded by people who inhabit rigid roles, and even when he actually does something (which is only ever in reaction to something that happens to him), he seems to resist genuine progress.

The film begins like the archetypal private-eye story: with a beautiful “dame” walking in and putting the reluctant PI on the toughest case of his career.  But the plot doesn’t take quite as long as The Big Sleep to become murky and incoherent because Inherent Vice does it on purpose.  Some things are resolved.  Some things are deliberately not.  Plenty of people – Rudy Blatnoyd (Martin Short), Sauncho Smilax (Benicio del Toro), Aunt Reet (Jeannie Berlin), and others – are there for no reason or do not accomplish what appears to be their one purpose (at least as far as Doc is concerned).  The characters are fun to spend time with in a Jackie Brown sort of way, though a first viewing of this film isn’t necessarily for purposes of finding out what happens, as the plot and story become extraneous fairly early on.  Anything that could be exciting, romantic, or conclusive is subverted – Doc’s relationships with Shasta and Penny, Doc’s big shootout with thugs, even the involvement of Sortilège (Joanna Newsom), who narrates the story and whose face is seen plenty of times, is never defined in any clear way as a part of this story or a character of her own: who is she to Doc?  Who is she narrating to?  Why would anyone care, given the nature of the story’s structure?

Characters are enveloped in thick white-gray light so that the film is always wrapped in a sort of haze, which not only mimics Doc’s pot-addled mind, but also makes everything seem realistic and down-to-earth when the goal of the characters (read: main cast – Doc, Shasta, Hope [Jena Malone], Bigfoot, Mickey [Eric Roberts]) is to get somewhere that isn’t real or to grasp something that no longer exists – Doc’s fantasy life of being a badass private-eye on a scenic coast; Shasta’s seemingly perfect life with business mogul Mickey (who has become so sick of his life of corruption that he joins a cult where he doesn’t have to think about it any more); Hope’s insistence that her life of heroin-fueled debauchery with husband Coy (Owen Wilson), who has also run away (to become a snitch for several dangerous organizations), can be reconciled into a happy family life; Bigfoot’s bravado and conservative bullshit about being a respected cop when he’s actually whipped by his wife and moonlighting as an extra on Adam 12 and doing commercials in which he’s forced to wear a fake afro; even Clancy Charlock’s (Michelle Sinclair) hope that her no-goodnik husband (whose corpse we saw two hours ago and never shed a tear over) is alive. Closeups of characters involve unflattering framing and light that makes them appear as real people with disheveled hair, natural movements, and nary an airbrushed mole.  There’s natural beauty in the tiny moments, when Doc and company are not reaching for the ephemeral.

The film’s roadblocks are all in the choices made by its director, and maybe its purpose altogether (i.e. its self-conscious lack thereof).  A film should not be made with the intention of becoming a misunderstood cult classic.  Nearly all of its most positive reviews by respected critics involve the phrases “a film for film lovers” or “a film that demands comparison to [this] and [that].”  Being derivative is one thing, but you cannot say those things and then call a film “unique” and “original” in the same breath, much less when it’s based on a novel and so desperately (and here’s where I compare it to something) xeroxes Coen Brothers material.  Yes, nostalgia is a big theme in the film, perhaps its strongest.  But nostalgia shouldn’t be the one thing that causes us to 1) see a film, and 2) get so precious about it – similar to actual memories.

Worst, maybe, is Anderson’s continued misuse (and the word “use” is sadly appropriate here) of the female cast.  Where his last film had Philip Seymour Hoffman singing an active and impressive version of “Amsterdam Maid” while dozens of nude young (and old, none in between) women bounced around like decorations, this one has plenty of attempted characterization of women with one common trait: they all sit around waiting for a man (or multiple men) to save them.  But look at Shasta: she’s the one who doesn’t seem to need any of this.  She’s the film’s most liberated soul.  Until, of course, she returns to Doc’s apartment, strips down, and nakedly monologues in a several-minute-long single shot about how she’s in fact a much worse kind of person, objectifies and verbally degrades herself while rubbing her foot along Doc’s crotch, and then allows herself to be spanked and sexually ravaged.  I’m not sure which I prefer, if I have to prefer one: a film with practically no women (There Will Be Blood) or one wherein the women debase themselves at the whim of the men before and behind the camera (and wherein their greatest fantasy is living a life that involves actually making choices).  Also note: the fact that the actress has stated that the scene did not bother her doesn’t mean that the scene isn’t problematic as a whole or that it doesn’t perpetuate serious issues in our culture.

So yeah.  Inherent Vice is nostalgic, deliberately uncomfortable, and fun to try to puzzle out, but when it “says” something, it says the wrong thing, and much like its protagonist, who never knows what’s being said or whether he’s actually saying much of anything, the film itself isn’t too clear about whether its makers understand exactly what they are saying.  It doesn’t take repeat viewings to figure that out.

Inherent Vice (2014); based upon the novel by Thomas Pynchon; screenplay and direction by Paul Thomas Anderson; starring Joaquin Phoenix, Katherine Waterston, Josh Brolin, and Jena Malone. 

Wild

You’re a woman!

WildWild, based upon Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, has all the makings of 1) a heroic self-acceptance tale, and 2) an Oscar-winning film.  In the first five minutes, we get gruesome suspense, body horror, Reese Witherspoon topless, endearing humor, and lots of cussing.  It’s the type of underdog story that the Academy loves, but it’s riskier and more dangerous than any of the year’s contenders because not only does it have a female hero, but it makes no effort to portray her as a synthetic ingénue whose purity cannot be pierced.  Here, we have a three-dimensional, decision-making person with recognizable foibles, which is to say a real person.  I suppose it helps that she is a real person.

Cheryl, played by Witherspoon, walks away from scrambled memories of divorce, drug use, destructive sexual escapades, and the loss of her mother (Laura Dern) to hike a thousand miles on the Pacific Crest Trail.  It’s clear from the start that she has not trained for this: she does not pack enough food, carries plenty of supplies she doesn’t need (which causes fellow hikers to refer to her pack as “monster”) has no clue how to ignite her camping stove, and her tent is far too large (which is probably a filmmaking flub, not a commentary on Cheryl as a greenhorn).  Gradually, events are revealed as they happened, and Cheryl’s perilous journey becomes a quest not to “redeem” herself for acting out (as Strayed has put it herself on plenty of occasions), but to come to terms with her experiences, and hopefully, to move forward.

Unlike Tracks with Mia Wasikowska earlier this year, Wild is more about Cheryl’s reasons for making the trek than the trek itself.  There is not much “hiking” to speak of in the film – there’s some walking up hills, some climbing over rocks, some ambling through the expected assortment of wilderness tile-sets (green forest, hot expanse of sand, snowy plains, and even rundown suburban road), but the film gives us the Hollywood version of the hike, and the one that appeals to this generation of filmgoers: the version that doesn’t take up much time or get bogged down in actual details.  Instead, the home drama drives the film toward its goal while the hike serves as the parable/myth: Chery’s feet are bruised, then bloodied, then broken, then stripped of boots (protection), then repaired by hand with Cheryl’s resourcefulness and improvisation, and then finally, last we see them, they’re in brand new boots.  She displays her foot injuries to other hikers to show how far she’s come.  There are animals and children deliberately placed to evoke certain somethings in an audience (and I say “deliberately placed” as in the filmmakers using elements of Strayed’s real-life narrative to cleverly, albeit sometimes predictably, perpetuate its own themes). There’s even a symbolic fox whom Cheryl initially begs to “come back” and is eventually able to let go.

The film’s core emotion is fear.  In the broad sense, it’s the fear of not succeeding, that Cheryl’s journey will yield nothing but hunger and exhaustion.  Cheryl’s biggest threat in the wilderness is not wild animals (in fact, she barely meets any, other than a spooked rattlesnake, a caterpillar, a horse, and a domesticated alpaca), but the men she comes into contact with.  There is a clever mislead early on when a farmer (W. Earl Brown) promises to give her a ride, then says he’s bringing her back to his place for dinner and a hot shower, just after Cheryl finds a pistol in his truck.  When they arrive, the man’s wife is home, having prepared a meal, and while the man has some antiquated ideas about what women should be “allowed” to do, his intentions are completely benevolent.  This scene isn’t just a good mislead; it plants a seed that stays with us: throughout the rest of the film, we’re just waiting for an aggressive pervert to show up and antagonize Cheryl for real. This happens in the form of two hunters who amuse themselves by directing rape jokes at Cheryl and later making very real threats (which one of them considers to be harmless flattery), and Cheryl stands her ground.  It’s a vital scene because it forces the audience, regardless of gender, to inhabit the receiving end of the dangerous “Can’t a guy give a woman a compliment?” attitude/behavior that threatens and victimizes so many in our current culture.

Wild‘s feminism is evident in its premise alone, just as it was in Tracks: a woman leaves it all behind to find herself in the wilderness, and survives conditions that would have made Hemingway shudder (as would the assertion that roughing it in the bush could be anything other than a “manly” pursuit).  In fact, a male hiker Cheryl befriends (Kevin Rankin) quits the trek after mentioning how rigorously he trained for it.  Cheryl is already an activist and an avid reader, but the idea of feminism is continuously denormalized, particularly in a scene wherein a traveling journalist (Mo McRae) mistakes Cheryl for a hobo and mentions that there are “almost no female hobos,” treating Cheryl, along with her ideas about the responsibilities heaped upon women vs. the fact that very few women are reckless adventurers, as novelties.  Later, a group of young male hikers refer to Cheryl as their hero.  These incidents (and the fact that they’re not just movie fabrications) make Cheryl’s eventual triumph all the more gratifying.

I’m tempted to mention that Robyn Davidson’s completely-on-foot journey across Australia involved no home-cooked meals, bus rides, or prolonged human contact (not to mention being deep-fried by the sun), but these films really should not be stacked against each other.  Both stories deal with big decisions, solitude, and identity.  Both involve lost parents and the execution of a beloved pet, and the hardships that come with those for emotional, thinking people.  Robyn and Cheryl are both incredible role models and vital figures in his/herstory, and these films are continuing (and more importantly, helping to normalize) the tradition of the empowered, independent female hero, and of depicting this character as a person, not an archetype, something that the Brontës had to hide their identities to do, and that Kate Chopin’s work was ostracized for.  Things that matter: you’re not gonna get them from Clint Eastwood.

Wild (2014); based on the memoir by Cheryl Strayed; screenplay by Nick Hornby; directed by Jean-Marc Vallée; starring Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

You have no power here

hobbit3By the mercy of the Valar, Peter Jackson’s (hopefully) final Tolkien adaptation is leaner and more concise than the previous two, yet highlights the exact problems with creating three films out of a shorter-than-most-novellas-and-many-poetry-collections novel for children.  Remember PJEs from last time?  As sad as I am to see them go, I am not sad to see them go.

The Battle of the Five Armies, previously entitled There and Back Again, begins with what should have been the final ten minutes of The Desolation of Smaug in place of the mindless “kill the dragon with the stuff he literally sleeps under” fandango: Bard (Luke Evans), temporarily incarcerated by the Master of Lake Town (Stephen Fry), breaks out of his flimsy cage and kills Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch collecting his easiest paycheck yet) by firing the arrow we’ve heard all about into the hole in Smaug’s hide that we’ve heard all about, in the process using his young son as a stabilizer for his bolt – since this is mostly invention anyway, a way to create actual stakes would have been to have Bard’s son perish as the lifeless dragon plummets into the burning Dale, but then our Boring Hero would not have been quite so boring, and we can’t have that.

Bilbo (Martin Freeman) is now stuck inside the reclaimed Erebor with Scrooge – er, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and company, previously tricked by Gandalf (Ian McKellan) into becoming the company’s “burglar.”  Thorin has become obsessed with protecting his own gold, and refuses to aid the people of Lake Town in rebuilding, taking back his promise to fulfill their claim of Erebor’s treasure in the process.  The Mirkwood Elves led by Thranduil (Lee Pace) and including Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and Legolas (Orlando Bloom) also have a claim – some of their ancestors’ MacGuffins lie inside Erebor – and wait things out with Bard, but to no avail.  Bilbo, having had enough of Thorin’s crap, hands over the Arkenstone (one of the three main MacGuffins in Tolkien’s legendarium, after the One Ring and the Silmarils) to the allied Men and Elves, hoping that a ransom will do the trick.  But Thorin has to deal with his issues on his own, and while everyone argues, a massive army of CGI Orcs marches upon Erebor (their mischief quota for the decade has not yet been met, and now they can wipe out all of the do-gooders at once).

Unlike the second installment, this film actually feels finished.  It’s certainly not the “defining chapter,” but similar to An Unexpected Journey, the adapted parts turn out pretty well, specifically the expunging of Sauron (in animated GIF form) from Dol Guldur by the White Council, composed of Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Elrond (Hugo Weaving), and the not-yet-corrupted Saruman (Christopher Lee).  Galadriel is given the task of banishing Sauron with her incredible power, while the others hold off the Nazgul (!), and what could have been a disastrous repeat of the Dol Guldur battle in the second film accomplishes quite a bit: Galadriel, one of the only two women among the film’s roughly thirty speaking roles, is given an important task to do while keeping in step with the mythology.  Her standoff, in “blue” form, with Sauron (which would be truly tense if not for the fact that we know she defeats him because we’ve already seen the “sequels”) illustrates exactly why she is so terrified of being offered the One Ring later.  Cate Blanchett slips back into the role as easily as if they’d filmed this in conjunction with The Fellowship of the Ring, and I almost high-fived the stranger next to me in the theatre when Galadriel casually strutted barefoot into the Orc-infested pits of Dol Guldur and began destroying enemies with the wave of a hand.

The film also highlights Thorin’s greed (albeit spinning its tires to the point of near-baldness to do so).  His decision to break his oath is worse than anything done by the film’s Orc villains, Azog and Bolg (calling them one-note would be an insult to stock characters).  This section, though, is one of the most egregious examples of how this film, 144 minutes, should have been even leaner.  Nearly every shot in the film is too long.  Every integral character has multiple closeups with serious looks on their faces whilst their hair blows in slow motion.  Conversations that already went on for too long are repeated in other characters’ heads later.  One of the film’s opening shots is a closeup of Tauriel that lasts for so long that one can almost hear the filmmakers saying, “Look! We got a woman to agree to be in this!”  Countless scenes are comprised of cliche’ non-Tolkien dialogue, including a dozen versions of this: That army was bred for one purpose. / What purpose? / (pause) War.  There are more villain-slowly-raises-weapon-to-kill-hero-leaving-just-enough-time-for-another-hero-to-stop-him scenarios than in every LotR film combined.  The eponymous battle looks like it’s about to end countless times, only for something to go wrong or another horde to show up.  The central fights in the battle (Thorin vs. Azog; Legolas/Tauriel vs. Bolg) start out well enough, tense enough, engaging enough, but employ misleads and “you only thought he was dead” moments ad nauseum.  The protracting of these scenes only highlights the series’s ongoing CG issues (cartoonish elf stunts, characters blipping across the screen, video-gamey movements, mounts appearing as blobs of color, etc.) and storytelling problems: after so much focus on the Erebor quest, why don’t we find out what happens to it and the Arkenstone after the battle’s end (in the novel, Dain, Thorin’s cousin, played here by Billy Connolly as a belligerent Irishman, takes over)?  Why is so much tension given to whether a battle will break out, when the title of the movie already gives that away?  Why isn’t Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), one of the funniest and most important supporting characters in the book, not to mention completely unique compared to the dwarf/elf/human/orc archetypes that constitute the main cast, featured more?  Why does Tauriel care about Kili (Aidan Turner)?  What does she decide to do after deciding that love is nothing but pain?  In what ways is this almost-relationship meant to be a revelation (i.e. Thranduil knows about Beren/lLuthien and Aragorn/Arwen, yo!)?  Why isn’t Tauriel allowed to kill Bolg, when they’re both essentially inventions for this film, and when she’s the only one who has any real motivation to do so (besides just winning the battle)? Why do we see Legolas mourning a comrade’s death when The Fellowship of the Ring makes clear that he’s never had to deal with death before?  Why does he have to go hang out with Aragorn now?  Why does Bard’s son get involved in the fighting, but his daughters just make scared faces?  Why don’t we see the women (i.e. wives and daughters of the Lake Men) fight in the battle after they decide to fight? Why drag out the existence of made-up character Alfrid (Ryan Gage) and not have him do anything?  Maybe his scenes are misplaced attempts at humor, but his final sendoff, in which Bard essentially calls him a coward by calling him a girl, is in pretty poor taste.

The most important issue is one that bears repeating: you cannot create tension or stakes in a prequel by introducing material that has already been resolved in the originals.  If you drink a single milligram of arsenic every time this film focuses on a contrived lead-in to something that happens in the LotR trilogy, you will be dead before the credits.

The titular hobbit does a bit more this time around, and the film ends (as it should/must/etc.) with him.  The final scene takes a moment to reflect upon all we’ve been through with the movie versions of the hobbits, and then reminds us exactly where we began.  This is one of maybe two scenes that evoke any real emotion in the film, mostly because none of the characters have actually been characterized or deepened.  The other scene is Bilbo’s tearful farewell to dying Thorin, who apologizes profusely for his selfish actions earlier.  The scene works because Freeman and Armitage are adept actors who have spent a lot of time playing opposite one another; however, it falls slightly short because it mirrors the scene between Aragorn and Boromir in Fellowship, and the core issue is that it’s the same moment.

Many of the issues are with Tolkien, including the continuous exclusion of women (none appear in The Hobbit; none are a part of the Fellowship of nine, few do anything of importance in The Silmarillion besides die), but most of it is with the filmmakers.  The story could have been more succinct with one movie or even two, but three installments that all breach 2.5 hours actually lampshades the absence of character growth.  The most complete piece of the Hobbit film trilogy, The Battle of the Five Armies puts forth an (mostly) honest effort, and is, for the foreseeable future, the last one I’ll get a chance to look at.  Y’know, unless New Line greenlights an Azog n’ Friends spinoff.

Read my writeup of The Desolation of Smaug here, and An Unexpected Journey here.

Check out a Tolkien-based film I worked on here and here.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014); based upon the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien; screenplay by Peter Jackson and Philippa Boyens, and Fran Walsh; directed by Peter Jackson; starring Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Cate Blanchett, Richard Armitage, and Evangeline Lilly.

Mockingjay Part 1

Stranger things did happen here

MockingjayLet’s just start where we left off.  In the next section of the Hunger Games story, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) heads to District 13, once thought destroyed by the Capitol (but actually putting a revolution in motion), along with Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), and others.  In 13’s cramped underground bunker (which made me feel like I was once again conscripted onboard the Matrix‘s Nebuchadnezzar), Katniss meets some new faces: President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), the inscrutable-yet-not-ice-cold leader who plans on Fidel-Castro-ing her way to rulership of Panem; Cressida (Natalie Dormer), the shaven-headed-and-tattooed film director whose job is to feature Katniss in propaganda videos in order to rally support for the rebellion; Boggs (Mahershala Ali), Coin’s right-hand man, who might be more accurately described as “the guy who fetches Katniss when other people need her for something;” and Paylor (Patina Miller), the leader of the rebellion in District 8.  Most importantly (to Katniss, anyway), she is reunited with her sister, Prim (Willow Shields), such an ingénue that she’s named after the most delicate of flowers (and she even bears a resemblance to Mary Pickford).

Director Francis Lawrence navigates the slow-burning first half of the source novel through the eyes of Katniss (the lens through which the entire book series is told, and in present tense, no less), occasionally breaking away for Bad Guy Stuff between Donald Sutherland and whichever unlucky mooks happen to be within earshot of his garden-variety evil pontificating.  Otherwise, the main narrative is built of Katniss’s interactions with various others in 13, most importantly Coin, Prim, Plutarch, and the recently liberated Effie (Elizabeth Banks), seen for the first time in the series without buckets of makeup (yep; there’s a real person with real emotions under there!).  The main goal now is to rescue Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and Johanna Mason (Jena Malone) from the clutches of the Capitol so that a full-on assault can happen without endangering the lives of those who made Katniss’s escape from the arena possible – in other words, there’s still the promise of actiony stuff for casual non-readers.  But the best parts of the film are the haunting reminders of what will come in any war story, especially one that wants to show younger folks a thing or two about the horrors of combat.  This is done not by melting people’s skin off onscreen (that’s next time), but by elegant flourishes like having Katniss sing an a capella version of “The Hanging Tree” (a made-up folk song that actually sounds like a folk song) as requested by a poor sap who’s had his tongue hacked out by the Capitol.  Moments later for us, weeks/months in-universe, a gang of citizens martyr themselves in order to destroy the Capitol’s power source, all the while singing Katniss’s song.

As Katniss must now keep track of everyone’s most minute movements, so must we.  What kind of leader will Coin be?  She wants to use Katniss as a symbol to fuel her own ambitions, but at least she’s honest about it.  Julianne Moore could have played the character as shifty-eyed and overtly duplicitous, but instead plays a character whom it’s very easy to feel close to, even though your brain is telling you to keep your distance.  Hoffman’s Plutarch reveals his sense of humor, as well as his stake in all of this, and his lone scenes with Moore’s Coin bring back fond memories of The Big Lebowski (memories that will unfortunately only be memories from here on).  Dormer’s Cressida more or less encapsulates District 13’s attitude in a single person: “We like you, Katniss, but not as much as we like the rebellion, and only as long as we can still use you.”  Miller’s Paylor is underused and underseen, especially considering upcoming events, but I’ll save that.  Almost completely MIA is Jena Malone’s Johanna Mason, who appears in a silent cameo after being rescued, yet (and this is to Malone’s unbelievable credit) we’re assured that her entire personality is still intact just by the look she gives Katniss after tearing an oxygen tube out of her nostrils.

The most important part of the Hunger Games films is the characterization of Katniss.  A film inherently cannot spend as much time inside the character as a written narrative can, but both Lawrences are intent on not reducing Katniss to a Boring Hero (that role goes to steadfast pragmatist Gale [Liam Hemsworth] – imagine if he were the main character?).  Mockingjay dedicates plenty of scenes to Katniss alone and brooding, but never whining or dejectedly sulking.  The serious PTSD has started to set in, ensuring that what’s to come in Katniss’s personal life will be neither pleasant nor a surprise.  Furthermore, attention is given to the minutiae, which affects characterization far more than any of the “deep” thematic stuff: Katniss’s adoration for her sister is illustrated through little mannerisms that they both recognize.  They sleep in a bed together like children do.  Katniss reacts the way a person is supposed to when they see a pile of human skulls in the middle of a street (hint: not with a badass one-liner about vengeance).  She’s not your straight/narrow Harry Potter type, regardless of how YA narratives may get lumped together.  But she’s not a femme fatale either, and even after three films, she refuses to be anything but human.

The final installment will be fast and violent, but if this film and Catching Fire were any indication, Katniss’s voice will be heard more clearly than the myriad explosions will.

Read my writeup of Catching Fire here.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (2014); based on the novel by Suzanne Collins; screenplay by Danny Strong and Peter Craig; directed by Francis Lawrence; starring Jennifer Lawrence, Natalie Dormer, Donald Sutherland, Julianne Moore, and Philip Seymour Hoffman.